Concussions in the classroom: professor vs. student

By Lorelei Poch
Staff Writer

When sophomore, Megan Doherty, suffered her fifth concussion this fall due to an open ice hit during a game against SUNY Potsdam, the ice hockey forward had to retire from collegiate hockey. That was tough. Then, after missing a week of classes when she went home to recover, she wondered about how her professors would react. In the beginning they were sympathetic, but as the weeks went on things changed.

Doherty said she felt lucky that her professors seemed to understand when she first returned to school. She struggled to focus in class and take notes, but her attendance alone seemed to matter to professors. It was later in the semester when things became more difficult.

From the beginning of this school year to now, 56 students have formally filed concussions with the office of the dean, who then alerts faculty. Jonathan D’Amore, Saint Michael’s College Associate Dean, works to communicate individual students’ needs to professors for both short term and long-term circumstances. He said one of the most important aspects of his job is to help individual instructors working with students understand concussions and how they affect students individually and invisibly.

D’Amore emphasized the importance of trainings in recent years for faculty lead by the Brain Injury Association of Vermont which provided general information, He also meets with students to determine what their short and long-term limitations will be and then communicates  that to faculty members.

Students must have the right discussions with their professors to get the specific help they need for their individual symptoms, which can vary greatly depending on the severity needs of the concussion, how many they have had, and how well they manage their symptoms.

Lack of communication between departments leave faculty without enough information to properly accommodate the student’s needs, D’Amore said.. A discrepancy of expectations can cloud decision making around what works best for the student’s well-being and how to maintain a high level of education and learning for both the classroom and the individual.

Holes in communication are frustrating to students like Doherty and others with traumatic brain injuries who must defend their personal limitations, with professors who might not be willing to revise their work load. Doherty spoke out about her classroom struggles claiming that she would get this “very overwhelming pressure to just keep up when taking notes in class.”  Doherty would remove herself from attending classes later in a day due to the overpowering feeling of fatigue and defeat from her concussion.

Doherty appreciated the help she had from the athletic trainers, who sent out the initial email telling her professors she was concussed. This made the conversations with her professors easy because they already knew about it.

Since concussions are not a physical injury, professors cannot see progress made unlike a broken arm, so when Doherty neared the end of this fall semester she said her professors expected her to be healed. “It felt like my professors thought I was taking advantage of the fact they were extending my assignments, they almost seemed like they did not trust me that I was still injured.” One professor asked, “Are you even seeing a doctor?”

Jordan Monbouquette, a junior on the ice hockey team, suffered the symptoms  from a traumatic brain injury for 11 months, struggling with dizziness, blurred vision, and memory problems which faded out to light and noise sensitivity and headaches. Monbouquette found herself needing academic accommodations, such as extensions on assignments, for the spring and fall semesters of 2017. Her professors generally understood her situation except for one. When Monbouquette turned in an assignment late, he responded with, “That was two months ago.”

Monbouquette said she was lucky to have the support network she did through the athletics department and somewhat through academics, adding they allowed her to drop a class in the last week of school. But she said the college lacks  a mental support program, and someone she “could just talk to” about her journey to recovery. Monbouquette would also like faculty to be properly educated about concussions each school year to ensure students can feel confident that their needs will be taken care of professionally.

Ashley Johnson attended Saint Michael’s College for just two months before she was in car accident and suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, otherwise recognized as “a really bad concussion.” Most of Johnson’s professors were accommodating, she said, but one was particularly unhelpful. When Johnson explained her doctor’s accommodations (she was to attend as many classes as she was capable of and prescribed school as a vital component of her recovery) the faculty member responded with, “Should you really be here?” to which Johnson was shocked.

Johnson’s story got worse. One professor blurted out questions in front of her whole class about her conditions. Johnson said Tony Messuri and the staff at the Academic Enrichment Commons “fought for her” and accommodated her needs, but she ultimately decided to transfer to Norwich University. In retrospect, Johnson said, she wished the Academic and Health Services departments would communicate better so non-athletes, who lack immediate support from Athletics, don’t end up transferring when their needs are not recognized.

Doherty said she and others are ready to form a student coalition of long-term injured athletes to support concussed students and provide a structured backbone of trust to aid students when they feel down about their condition.